We were originally going to go on a tour of Halong Bay from Hanoi and there are millions of tour agencies there to compare. Unfortunately, there are lots of reports that for prices starting anywhere from $70 for a night trip on Halong Bay way up to hundreds of dollars the standards vary significantly and there are no consistently highly rated tours that wouldn’t have blown our whole budget for Vietnam. However, after doing research, we decided that instead to make our way to Cat Ba Island stay there and get a tour from there. We booked our bus-boat-bus combination ticket with Good Morning Cat Ba for 405 000 dong each one way.
The following day we were picked up by a small bus, leg room was cramped but it was fine for the few hours journey and we both ended up falling asleep for a bit. We were originally supposed to be picked up between 7.30-7.45am for the bus to leave Hanoi at 8am but the bus arrived at 8.15am and then we spent another 45 minutes traveling around Hanoi picking up people and trying to leave the city. This meant that the original two hour journey to catch our speedboat at Hải Phòng pier was condensed into a very speedy hour on the highway. Our driver did manage to get us there on time and we were promptly told there was no time to use the toilet before we boarded the boat. The weather here was grey and drizzly. Due to us being late to the boat our luggage was dumped on the pile at the back of the boat and we had to take up sitting on little silver stools on the deck. We only spent 30 minutes on the speedboat but we were very cold and windswept after it as we were just covered in all the spray from the water. On arriving at the pier on Cat Ba Island we were guided to another bus for another 45 minutes where they dropped us directly off at our hotel for about 11.30ish.
Unfortunately like Hanoi the weather was equally grey, quite misty, windy and we had rain most days we were on Cat Ba. This was just bad timing as the weather the week before and supposedly the week after was supposed to be glorious sunshine. It was surprising though how used we had become to hot weather. It felt quite cold- we were in trousers and layered up and it was about 16°C, which is getting on for nice English weather temperatures.
Cat Ba Island has seen a surge in tourists in recent years and the island has a lot of development on it. There is a strip along the water that is just full of hotels, restaurants and minimarts. A lot of the tourism exists in the summer with Vietnamese people from Hanoi and the surrounding areas flocking there for their holidays. As it was not the summer and the weather was bad there were not many people around during our visit. There was also LOTS of building going on so that new hotels and establishments are ready for the peak season. We were fortunate enough not to hear any of this though from our hotel which was right in the middle of the tourist strip overlooking the marina. We stayed in Phu Thanh hotel on the ninth floor (luckily there was an elevator) and we even had a sea view out of our side window. We had a lovely clean room with two double beds in it (one for us to sleep in, one for Dave to empty the contents of his bag onto!) and a private bathroom for £8 a night (split between us).
Right next door to our hotel was one of the only real coffee shops called Like Cafe and we started our day on Cat Ba chilling out in there having a coffee, Dave was happy that they did egg coffee there too (32 000 dong), we believe the only place on the island that did it! We visited here quite a few times during our four days there as it was very relaxed, the staff were very pleasant and they did really nice coffee. We walked along the bay front and found some basic noodle soup at one of the restaurants. Unfortunately as Cat Ba survives on tourism it means many of the restaurants now try to mainly provide western food at hiked up prices or they serve very generic food for still raised prices compared to what you can find in the city. After refuelling we walked along the bay and round to the beaches. There are three in total all that look like they would be lovely to relax on when it was sunny, instead they were very breezy but still lovely to look at. All beaches and the walk between them provided great views out into Lan Ha bay where you can see the limestone karst formations rising out of the sea and fishing boats going by. At the time we visited these beaches also had a lot of development on them. Larger resorts were being built on them or parts of resorts were being refurbished so even if the weather had been nice it would have been noisy and not relaxing.
In the evening we ate at Yummy restaurant which we had discovered when walking traditional few backstreets that there are. This restaurant served Thai and tradtional Vietnamese food for a reasonable price that was mostly really tasty. Due to this we ended up eating every evening meal there as we couldn’t find anywhere else really that was as cheap or offered Vietnamese food beside fried rice or noodle soup. We tried Bun Cha (40 000 dong) which is barbequed pork served along side cold vermicelli rice noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs and a spicy dipping sauce. We also tried fried mixed vegetables (30 000 dong) which were a bit disappointing, and fried spring rolls which were delicious (40 000 dong). During our stay we also tried their version of Bun bo nam bo (40 000 dong) which was tasty and then on our last night we also tried their fried fish which looked nice but tasted very dirty so we didn’t finish that. On the first evening we also headed to Oasis bar as they had a happy hour where draft beer was only 10 000 dong each.
In order to see Halong bay, our reason for heading to Cat Ba, we booked a day tour through our hotel for 350 000 dong each (£12). We were picked up in a minivan and transported to another dock to board our boat. It was a large wooden boat with comfy leather booths, a small deck outside and a large deck on top where you could sit and watch the world go by. The weather was cold, misty and drizzly which worsened as the day went on and I was very grateful that there was the inside area where you could warm up if only a little. There was only about 15 people maximum so we had a lot of space to ourselves. The trip started with us venturing out into Lan Ha bay and seeing the nearby floating villages where people live, work and go to school out on the water, getting around by small boats. The views of Lan Ha bay were stunning with the rock formations and the water making for very beautiful landscape. The grey skies actually added to the mystery of the place and gave it an other worldly feeling. We saw a few other tourist boats on our trip but not the hundreds you would get if starting in Halong Bay. We also got to see quite a few locals out fishing and steering/ rowing their boats with their feet which was impressive to see.
After taking lots of pictures and watching the world go by we arrived at our first stop. The boat pulled into a small dock in the middle of the bay area and we joined several other boat loads of tourists in kayaking in and around the bay. This was an amazing experience even if we got very cold and wet afterwards even though the water was actually quite mild. It was humbling to be kayaking in somewhere that was so picturesque and a wonder of nature. * It also made you feel very small next to such large structures. After doing a loop of about half an hour we returned to the boat where some how I was a lot wetter than most of the other people on the boat (we had an open style kayak rather than a closed one like most other people). Luckily I had a change of clothes with me but I could not get warm after that really and spent the rest of the boat trip quite chilly. We had lunch on the boat (included in the ticket price) where we sat in small groups and had a range of local dishes- vegetables, greens, spring rolls, chicken, omlette and chips which was all very tasty.
The sky got very grey and even more misty as we sailed through Halong Bay but it was still pretty. After sailing for another 40 minutes we arrived at a point for swimming. If we had not already changed out of our wet swimming gear we may have gone for a swim but the weather was not great and I had only just got slightly warm so gave this a miss watching only a couple of other people jump into the water from our boat. It was initially advertised on the tour details as “snorkelling”. Apparently there was equipment on the boat for this but when asked what we would see snorkelling we were told that there wasn’t anything in the water to see.
For the last part of the tour we sailed to Monkey Island where we hopped onto a smaller boat to be taken to the shore as it was too shallow for our boat. There were a few monkeys running about on the beach and looking very mischevious. After taking a few pictures though we joined lots of other people doing the climb up to the top point of monkey island. This was a true climb- clambering over sharp unstable rocks, shimmying across wide gaps with sheer drops and having to push ourselves up by using the trees. We made it to the top though and the views were worth it being able to see all across the bay. Luckily we had decent shoes on to do it to as some people from other boats were trying to do the precarious and dangerous climb in flip flops whilst holding beers. We got ourselves down fairly quickly too as the rain was coming in and just the slight moisture on the rocks was making them slippy. We then reboarded the boat and returned to Cat Ba island for late afternoon (4.45pm). We warmed ourselves up with coffee at Like Coffee and then went for dinner at Yummy restaurant again.
On our last full day we were planning to rent a scooter to explore the island and visit the hospital cave from the war. However there was quite a bit of rainforecast so instead we walked up to Cannon Fort. This took about 30 minutes and the views on the way up of the bays and beaches were stunning. We discover a couple of old tanks hidden behind barriers on the way up too. The fort was used in the Vietnamese war and at the top you can see the old cannons, go through some of the trenches and visit some of the tunnels. There are also some cute goats up there too. You pay 40 000 dong entrance on the way up. There is also a cafe up there if you want something to drink, though they were blaring techno music not really fitting with the place. We got some great views of the bays from a point just down from the cafe though which over looked the marina.
For our return journey we booked with Hoang Long bus company which has an office on the main strip, this cost us half the price of the tickets from good morning Cat Ba (200 000 dong each) and despite the first minibus to the dock being very much a squeeze the rest of the journey was actually more comfortable back to Hanoi.
We still enjoyed our time in Cat Ba Island despite the weather, but it is no doubt that we would have been able to enjoy it more if it was sunny. When the weather is good you would be able to lay about on its 3 beaches or explore the area on a motorbike.
On returning to Hanoi we spent one night in Chien Hostel where we got to see the beautiful St.Josephs cathedral and spoke to an american couple during the hostel free beer 15 minutes. We went out for some nice dinner trying crab fried spring rolls which were great as well as more Bun Cha. In the morning we got our tickets for the night bus to Hue from STA Travel when we actually found there offical shop (there are loads of fake shops trying to look like them). Then we attempted to go to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum but when we got there (it was Saturday) we were shocked by the queue of locals and tourists that seemed to keep going for miles. Instead we found a coffee shop (where you had to walk through another shop and up some old alleyway stairs to get into it), and sat having more vietnamese ice coffee and egg coffee. We explored the lake area a bit more and chilled out before getting some Banh Mi from Banh Mi 25 (which was very good!) for our journey to Hue on our first night bus.
*Shortly after we visited Halong Bay the local adminstration of Quang Ninh province, home to Halong Bay slapped a ban on kayaking at Halong bay from effect of the 1st April. It cited that it was due to damage to the local tourism environment as overcharging from kayak operators was adversly affecting the reputation of Ha Long bay’s tourism environment. There was huge out roar from both tour companies and companies such as Lonely Planet who have rated the activity very highly. Due to the huge opposition towards the ban the authorities lifted the ban on kayaking trips on 11th April.